Urban Design Strategies for the Built Environment: a case Study Analysis

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Urban Design Strategies for the Built Environment:

A Case Study Analysis

Exploring strategies to encourage walkability and reduce automobile dependence

Dustin Khuu

February 6, 2014
Senior Research Project

Submitted in partial satisfaction of a BA in

Urban Studies and Planning

University of California, San Diego


Land use patterns in the United States have typically been oriented around the automobile since the mid-20th century. This research question aims to explore and identify urban design elements that encourage automobile dependence and what strategies encourage walkability and alternative modes of transportation. The area of study will focus specifically in the neighborhood surrounding the Euclid Ave. Transit Center in the Encanto neighborhood of Southeastern San Diego. Research was conducted through examining various case studies of urban design elements found in cities known to be pedestrian friendly. Field observations and interviews with design professionals and consultants were also conducted to identify design strategies for walkability. Appropriate strategies gathered from research were then applied to the context of the area of study. This paper argues that while many design guidelines exist and have been implemented in other walkable cities, many context-specific constraints exist in the Euclid Ave. and Market St. intersection, preventing dramatic changes to the urban form that would promote walkability.

Key terms: urban design, built environment, walkability, bicycling, transportation, sustainability, Southeastern San Diego

Since the end of World War II, land use patterns in the United States have exhibited sprawling automobile-oriented urban landscapes. This development creates a built environment that is hostile to anyone not traveling by automobile. The hostility of built environments for pedestrians and cyclists are rooted not in just the land use planning, but also its physical design as well. My research question is: what are the specific urban design elements that can help promote walkability and decrease automobile dependence? My goal to identify the various urban design elements that may encourage alternative modes of transportation, as well as what designs create hostile environments to those alternative modes, and explore context-specific case studies that can be applied to a local case study. Specifically, I will be focusing on the immediate neighborhood area surrounding the Euclid Ave. transit center in the Southeastern San Diego neighborhood of Encanto.

Walkability for “Placemaking”

The organization of space in the built environment has clear and strong effects on quality of life and a “sense of place,” a concept used by built environment professions to describe the existence of meaning of purpose in public space. Placemaking involves “the deliberate shaping of an environment to facilitate social interaction and improve quality of life” (Silberberg 2013: 1), because even if the physical infrastructure is designed to accommodate pedestrians, if there is no destination spot, such as a retail stores or street furniture like patio seating and benches, that built environment will not be utilized. Land use patterns designed to favor the automobile tend to lack these place-making amenities in the built environment, and this study aims to recognize those features, along with identifying which techniques would be suitable in the context of the Euclid Ave. and Market St. area in Southeastern San Diego. The neighborhood is considered to be a relatively low-income community lacking in amenities and economic investment. The lack of placemaking in the built environment also creates a public realm hostile to walking and alternative modes of transportation, leading to issues of public health, sustainability, and equity.

Walkability for Economy

Identifying suitable strategies for promoting walkability in this neighborhood of Southeastern San Diego will lead to numerous positive impacts for the community. Cities exhibiting urban design principles that facilitate high walkability tend to be vibrant spaces with high levels of pedestrian activities. Prime examples include the consistently crowded Spanish Steps of Rome or the bustling outdoor night markets in Taiwan. These places are fully active urban spaces because no part of the environment is built to accommodate automobiles, but instead are exclusively for pedestrians. The night markets in Taiwan are also large centers for commerce, where independent vendors sell food and retail goods. These strategies for attractive environments—if applied appropriately to this case study neighborhood—can lead to numerous benefits such as economic development, which can stimulate new jobs, amenities, and recreation space. This will create a sense of place in the community, especially with the nearby transit center being able to facilitate alternative modes of transportation.

Walkability for Sustainability

Designing neighborhoods to reduce automobile dependence has further positive impacts that go beyond stimulating economic development. The negative effects of increased automobile usage worldwide has led to a number of issues affecting cities worldwide, from local problems of heavy traffic congestion and air pollution, to global problems of diminishing non-renewable resources and climate change. In the context of long range planning issues, reducing the dominance of automobiles as the main mode of transportation is the only way to plan for the cities to allow for a sustainable future.

Walkability for Equity

Additionally, land use patterns that support alternative modes of transportation also allow for the access to mobility for certain demographics who are not able to drive their own automobile, such as groups from lower socioeconomic classes, the elderly, and adolescents. A built environment that allows for all sectors of a population to have equal mobility creates a more equitable access to the space, whereas an environment that only accommodates the automobile will only allow persons with the means and resources to own a personal vehicle to have efficient access to the public space. Everyone has a right to the public space, and urban design that accommodates all modes of transportation will ensure this equal access. In this case study of the Euclid and Market neighborhood, the MTS trolley station connects residents to other areas of the San Diego region if they do not own a vehicle, and thus serves as existing infrastructure that currently facilitates equitable mobility, while also providing the capability to accommodate future reduction in automobile dependence and greater utilization of alternative modes with design changes.

The specific objectives for this research involve exploring different strategies in urban design that facilitate walkability and alternative modes of transportation, thereby reducing automobile dependence. I researched into specific case studies of cities in the U.S., or specific neighborhoods of cities in the U.S., that are known for their walkable designs and low rates of automobile usage. Cities examined in the case study analysis are: Downtown San Diego, Portland, and New York City, specifically Manhattan. Design elements learned from these case studies were then analyzed to see what would be appropriate to apply to the case study area around the Euclid Ave. and Market St. intersection. Goals for determining appropriate design strategies are to create a built environment that promotes walkability and reduces the need for automobile-dependent trips.


Public Health

A major concern with the presence of automobile-dominated land use patterns across the U.S. is that the issue of public health. When an urban landscape that can be accessed safely only by the use of driving or riding in a personal automobile, multiple health concerns begin affecting the population. It is well known in contemporary planning that the built environment has direct affects on quality of life. “Sprawling development patterns, for example, tend to reduce people’s housing choices and limit their opportunities for health, active living” (LaGro, 2013: 6). A growing issue in the United States is the national rise in obesity rates and Type II diabetes, especially among the country’s youth adolescent population. While these health issues may seem irrelevant to the field of urban planning and more to do with public health and food and agriculture policy, there is a correlation between obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. This lifestyle is only exacerbated among people living in medium density to low-density sprawl, where every daily activity is traveled to by car. In a health study done by John M. McDonald et al. for the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, MacDonald surveyed approximately 839 adults for 8-14 months who lived near a Light Rail Transit (LRT) system in Charlotte, NC and their Body Mass Index (BMI) was measured. Through interviews through the survey process, MacDonald found that respondents who reported using the LRT to commute to work were associated with an “81% reduced odds of becoming obese over time” (MacDonald et al. 2010: 105). MacDonald found a clear health correlation between those choosing utilizing transit for work and those using other modes, and concluded that LRT systems could provide positive health outcomes for millions of individuals. Land use patterns that support LRT systems tend to be of higher density to provide effective coverage, and these are the types of urban environments where alternative modes of transportation, such as walking and bicycling, are also more likely utilized for every day activities. These forms of active transportation thus have a positive effect on public health through decreasing the sedentary lifestyle responsible for the nation’s current obesity epidemic.

Beyond obesity, reducing automobile dependence in physical planning also benefits other aspects of public health. Automobiles themselves are responsible for numerous types of toxic emissions, and this correlation is shown in cities throughout the world that suffer from congestion problems due to heavy automobile usage. Smog regularly blankets the air in modern day Beijing, Mexico City, New Delhi (McIntyre 2010), and even Los Angeles before the invention of the catalytic converter. Even today, Los Angeles is still affected by smog, which is large part is due to the region’s medium and low-density land use patterns and lack of a connective public transportation system. Michael Bronner cited carbon monoxide (CO) as one of the many dangerous emissions from vehicle exhaust that damages human health (Bronner, 1997: 496). He writes that the CO binds “so tightly to the red blood cells that they become incapable of carrying oxygen, and thus inhibits the production of energy cells; the blood transports the poisonous CO throughout the body instead” (Bronner, 1997: 496). CO is just one of the many emissions from automobiles that carry a negative effect on human health. Long term exposure to car exhaust has been linked to worsening symptoms in individuals with asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis (Bronner, 1997: 496).


The issue of toxic emissions generated from automobiles leads to a larger overarching issue of the importance of reducing automobile dependence. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) are becoming an increasingly critical problem with global sustainability, and has even been referred to as an immediate crisis. Bronner (2007) spoke of the dangers of GHGs from the overuse of automobiles. He cites GHGs such as carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons (HC), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and tropospheric ozone (O3) as identified toxins being emitted from automobiles that are causing harm to the planet in the form of global climate change, as well as human health in the form of air pollution. The effort to reduce automobile dependence thus incorporates the larger objectives of public health and sustainability that go far beyond micro-projects in physical planning, but urban design and planning are strategies to help achieve those objectives. Automobile dependent built environments also has negative effects for those with access to a car, severely limiting their mobility.


The physical design of the built environment can have very real effects over who has power and access over the streets, and these effects can in turn create differences among various socio-economic groups. A land use pattern that prioritizes the automobile allows those traveling by car to dominate the space, which means that only those who possess enough resources to afford an automobile are able to properly access the built environment in the way planners designed the space to be used. In these auto-dominated spaces, prevalent in most suburbs and medium density cities like San Diego, people that are forced to rely on mass transit such as lower income groups, teenagers, and the elderly, are left to navigate through a built environment that is hostile to them. Not only are auto-oriented land use patterns hostile to those not traveling by car, but the mass transit systems in these areas also tend to be sparse and inefficient due to the lack of density and overall demand for transit. Koglin argues the same point, noting that current planning “gives more power to motorised traffic and less to pedestrians” (2011: 226). When segments of the population are denied safe access to public space that also limits their mobility, this becomes a serious social equity issue, as those unable to have access to a car are severely limited in the built environment. Today’s infrastructure is built for cars, but “everybody and all have the right to be in the city” (Kolglin 2011: 225).

Aesthetic Features

Urban design features also play a strong role in promoting or degrading quality of life by either contributing or degrading the previously discussed issues of public health, equity, and sustainability. “The arrangement of streets and buildings involves ‘design decisions’ that—for better or worse—shape the built environment” (LaGro, 2013: 9-10). A built environment that de-emphasizes the car and is friendly towards pedestrians and cyclists also has a lot to do with sidewalk design. Pedestrians and cyclists are more likely to utilize the sidewalk if the environment allows them to feel safe. Appleyard (1980) claims that the street is the most important part of the urban environment. His idea of the ideal street environment is one that is “safe for children from speed and careless drivers … places where communal life is possible … [where] people can sit out and talk easily” (Appleyard 1980: 107-108). These types of streets are ones designed towards the hospitality of pedestrians, not for facilitating the fastest route for automobiles.

To create a site that is pedestrian and cyclist-oriented instead of auto, urban design principles need to be incorporated that provide a sense of place and meaning for the people using the street. These design principles would include street assets such as trees and greenery to provide aesthetic value as well as shade for pedestrians, street furniture such as benches and tables that provide meaning, and protected bike lanes as part of complete street design. Good urban design may be seen as just a practice for exterior pleasantness that critics may view as an unnecessary luxury, but good urban design can also be cost efficient that will yield lasting benefits. Good design “reduces the long-term life-cycle costs of operating and maintain buildings’ infrastructure … when just 1 percent of a project’s up-front costs are spent, up to 70 percent of its life-cycle costs may already be committed … consequently, design excellence enhances community livability and sustainability, which benefits society, the economy, and the environment” (LaGro, 2013: 10-11).


The research methods for this topic are: case study analysis, policy research into existing conditions and neighborhood demographics, empirical field observations, and interviews with professional practitioners and consultants.

Policy Research & Existing Design Guidelines

The policy research involves demographic data, zoning ordinances, general plan specifications, and information, planning initiatives, and projects already proposed by the city through the community plan titled: Euclid and Market Land Use and Mobility Plan. The neighborhood has already been cited by the city of San Diego as an area of high potential for development and has proposed development projects to a number of parcels in the area. The Euclid and Market Land Use and Mobility Plan, along with the City of San Diego’s Southeastern San Diego Community Plan, are used as a data source for identifying context-sensitive information concerning the existing condition of the area.

Field Observations

Field observations involved first-person site visits to the area of study to collect empirical data. Empirical field observations include factors about the street life of the area, such as number of pedestrians utilizing the sidewalks, number of transit riders at the trolley station, number of bicyclists, frequency of transit cars, volume of automobile traffic in the main corridors, speed of traffic, observations of streetscape design, road design and width, and any design or infrastructure currently existing in the built environment that facilitates alternative modes of transportation. Date and times of the observations were noted to create the context for street activities witnessed. These empirical observations are then used to establish the current existing conditions of the site in terms of its level of automobile usage and utilization of walking, bicycling, and public transit. Dimensions of current infrastructure were also noted using GIS in Google Earth in order to compare existing designs to design strategies that are meant to enhance walkability and reduce automobile dependence.

Case Study Analysis

The case study analysis looks into other cities that are known for lower rates of automobile usage and greater utilization of alternative modes such as bicycling and public transit. Case studies analyzed were Portland, OR, New York City, NY, and specifically Downtown San Diego to give more local-based context, for certain design elements that either reduced automobile usage or provided accommodation of alternative modes of transportation, such as bicycling infrastructure or mass transit. These case studies were analyzed through the Google Earth application from a purely design perspective, measuring features of the respective built environment. I specifically measured: block size, sidewalk widths, road widths, number of lanes, and distance of automobile right-of-way required to cross for a pedestrian to cross the street. The objective of the case study analysis was to investigate how these cities’ designs shaped their built environment to reduce automobile dependence. These design qualities were then compared directly to the built environment found in the Euclid and Market area.


Interviews were conducted with urban design professionals and consultants about elements and strategies that create walkable environments and reduce automobile dependence. Three interviews were conducted with: Susan Peerson, UCSD Professor of Urban Design Practicum and Planning Commissioner of the City of San Diego; Jeff Howard, Senior Project Planner at Parsons Brinckerhoff; and Nancy Lytle, Assistant Vice President of Civic San Diego. Interviews were specifically chosen to feature input from professionals rather than community members because of their formal education and expertise with the concepts of design and planning. The purpose of interviews for data collection is to have professional input to serve as a type of informal consultation for the area of study, and see what specific problems they identify for the area, as well as context-specific strategies to improve walkability.


Policy Research, Community Characteristics, and Demographic Data

The Euclid Ave. and Market St. Transit Center is located in the San Diego neighborhood of Southeast San Diego, a portion of the city located east of its Downtown (Appendix A). The transit center serves multiple public transit routes that include the Orange Line trolley station and the MTS 3, 4, 5, 13, 916, 917, 955, 950 bus lines. Major circulation routes for vehicular in the neighborhood include Market St. that runs east-west, Imperial Ave. that runs east-west, Euclid Ave. that runs north-south, California State Route 94 that runs east-west, 0.57 miles north of the transit center, and Interstate 805 that runs north-south, 0.77 miles west of the transit center. Euclid St. and Market Ave. serve as the two main surface street corridors for the neighborhoods, as they are the main entrances and exits for both the CA-94 and I-805 freeways, leading to relatively high traffic volumes along both corridors throughout the day.

The neighborhood is currently served by two community plans from the San Diego Division of Planning. The Southeastern San Diego Community Plan covers the Encanto neighborhood along with sixteen other designated neighborhoods in the Southeastern region of the city of San Diego. The area around the Euclid Ave. and Market St. intersection is also served by a more specific community plan titled the Euclid and Market Land Use and Mobility Plan. Its vision is to create a community with mixed-use development to generate quality retail, employment, and housing appropriate for the community, facilitate usage of public transit to access these developments, incorporate public facilities that serves the needs of the community, and maximize the health of nearby Chollas Creek to provide natural open space for the community.

Demographic data of the local population is shown in the graph below. Significant demographic attributes to note about the local population when compared to the city-wide average of San Diego are: the above average household size, below average median household income (a disparity of almost $25,000), extremely higher levels of families living below the poverty level, especially families with children (a disparity of close to three times the city-wide average), higher levels of individuals having not completed high school (disparity of 2.5 times the city-wide average), and the extremely low levels of individuals having completed a college degree. According to the U.S. 2010 Census, the neighborhood is comprised with a large majority of African Americans at 54.6%, with the Hispanic and White population following at 22% and 21.8%, respectively. Data was taken from the 2010 U.S. Census on the Block Group level to generate greater accuracy for the immediate Euclid and Market site rather than the entire Southeast San Diego neighborhood. In summary, the study area can be characterized as a low-income community with limited rates of higher education, and a large percentage of ethnic minorities.

Source: Euclid and Market Land Use and Mobility Plan

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 Census.

In summary, the study area can be characterized as a low-income community with limited rates of higher education, and a large percentage of ethnic minorities. The neighborhood can be considered an area of low economic investment, with its higher rates of families living below the poverty level and lack of higher education. This demographic population can be estimated to have lower rates of car ownership than the city average, due to its lower income. This factor creates a problem for the existing built environment since most residents may be relying on alternative modes of transportation for mobility.

Existing community amenities in the surrounding area include mostly commercial and retail centers nearby the transit center (Appendix B). The largest retail center in the area is Market Creek Plaza, located adjacent to the south of the transit center. It consists of retail shops, restaurants, banks, and a grocery store, providing the necessary amenities that otherwise would not exist in a low-income, economically disinvested community. An organization in the community providing civic engagement is the Jacobs Foundation for Neighborhood Innovation, a non-profit organization aiming to generate economic development in the neighborhood. They are located adjacent to the west of the transit center and are responsible for developing Market Creek Plaza and attracting businesses to invest their shops in the area that was previously considered a food desert without access to fresh produce and services such as a bank.

Natural amenities to the area include Chollas Creek, a major creek that runs through the Jacobs Center from northeast southwest and drains at the San Diego Bay near the Port of San Diego. The creek is currently heavily polluted and efforts to remediate the site and develop a public recreation space along it are envisioned in the Euclid and Market Land Use and Mobility Plan. Community characteristics and demographic data of the study area prove that increasing walkability is important to improve mobility and address social equity for the current residents.

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